New show merges opera, queer sex and religion in Belfast

Composer Conor Mitchell is a little restless. He’s under pressure to put the finishing touches on an orchestral score, which will be the centerpiece of MASS, a large-scale ‘experimental’ musical and visual puzzle, whose individual pieces seem, at first glance, to be anything but a perfect fit. .

This is the latest offering from The Belfast Ensemble, a collective of Belfast-based and established artists that he formed five years ago to explore new ways of looking at music. During this time he produced some of the most exciting and artistically challenging works ever seen in the city.

MASS is the flagship event of Belfast’s 15th Outburst Queer Arts Festival, which takes place November 12-20. It is built around the Latin liturgy of the Catholic Mass and focuses on the concept of ritual in many and varied forms. The score will be performed by the 64 musicians of the Ulster Orchestra, with key liturgical segments sung by Giselle Allen, Sarah Richmond, Christopher Cull and John Porter.

In the hands of videographer Conan McIvor, this immersive musical experience will be wrapped in films screened by internationally renowned filmmakers from Egypt, Brazil, Syria, the United States, Lebanon, Jamaica and India. . Many of them live in harsh environments, where their gender identity and their creative object put their very existence in grave danger.

Composer Conor Mitchell

It was Abomination, the daring popular opera about homophobic attitudes within the Democratic Unionist Party, that caught Mitchell’s international attention and his revolutionary artistic vision.

“Abomination looked at new ways to integrate story, words, and NI [Northern Irish] queer politics, ”he says. “It was built to challenge the hallowed and museum relics of long-dead Italian / German operas which in my opinion don’t mean much to Belfast. It offered another route to opera, immediate, visible and relevant.

“It was about to run at the Southbank Center in London. Then the Covid-19 hit. I was on stage, at the height, when I noticed things were getting a little crazy around me. Everyone was on the phone looking very anxious. Then Boris Johnson called the first lockdown and I was on a plane to Belfast. “

Mitchell, who was recently named Wexford Festival Opera Artist in Residence, said the Ulster Orchestra’s collaboration with MASS was essential. Last year he made an orchestral video with them titled Democracy Dances and several conversations followed, in which he was struck by a budding spirit of commitment and musical empathy.

“For our national symphony orchestra, saying yes to something of this magnitude and committing to the same wanderers who made Abomination was seismic and courageous. They wanted to embark on a journey that would encourage people to see the orchestra in a new way.

“I had a traditional Catholic education and there are themes of the Mass to which I still cling”

“For me, as always, that means taking a familiar musical form, like an opera or a symphonic mass, and stretching the rubber band, not tearing it but pulling it as far as possible to seek new distances. By making the orchestra the center of the room, we inverted the lyrical form.

“I also wanted to create a visual dynamic that would take us out of Belfast and immerse us in the lives of queer people around the world. The films explore, challenge and even reject the text, its faith, its history, its themes. Sound is felt when you see its effect on people thousands of miles away. We, the audience, occupy the space in between.

MASS will be staged in the vast abandoned space that was the Belfast Telegraph printing room; a place which, in its heyday, followed its own daily cycle of rites and rituals.

“The place still has a strong industrial vibe,” says Mitchell. “The building is in poor condition but I wanted to keep its aged look. For years the print room was a hotbed of frenetic activity and deafening sounds, and it will soon be again.

“It’s inundated with local connections. It turns out that Giselle [Allen] father worked there as a typographer at the time. I like to think of all the stories that came off those presses – the introduction to Article 28, the queer ceilidh at Queen’s University, Iris Robinson condemning homosexuality as “an abomination.”

Mitchell sees the MASS event as more important and culturally significant than the play itself. He feels the ground is moving around the northern arts sector, and after years of artistic stagnation, a wind of change is starting to blow.

“For me, believing in something – a higher power – is not a religion. It’s more the search for meaning ‘

“It’s amazing to think the Ulster Orchestra is playing new music in the city center, headlining a gay festival, playing Catholic mass for dancing in a hall that is used for raves.

“MASS seeks to put spirituality back on the table while surrounding it with carnival experiences, Mardi Gras, street events, pride marches, festivals, the club scene. One minute you’re listening to dance rhythms, the next you’re drowning in the Sanctus.

“I would say almost everyone who grew up here did so with some kind of religious doctrine in their blood. I had a traditional Catholic education and there are themes of the Mass that I still cling to. Your beliefs may change as you get older, but there is always a sense of community that lingers, the act of coming together in praise and celebration. This and the central themes of resurrection and rebirth are crucial in the lives of gay and trans people. “

Mitchell is frank that the play is deeply personal.

“For me, believing in something – a higher power – is not a religion. It’s more the search for meaning, ”he says.

“There are pauses in the room for reflection and contemplation. As a homosexual, finding myself and being reborn as an authentic “me” has always been kept in a state of balance between the deep faith base of my childhood and the society at large, things against which I have. reacted, then embraced, then challenged, then accepted. All of these things are present here in this music.

MASS performances are on November 17th and 18to 7pm and 9pm at the Telegraph Building, Royal Avenue, Belfast.

Outburst Queer Art Festival runs from November 12 to 20e. Program and booking information can be found at

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